Claymation has always had that special something — a lilt of life that its too-perfect digital counterparts can’t touch.
Its magic resides partly in its imperfection, namely its inability to disguise its own processes. The herky-jerky motions and the impressions of the animator’s fingers reinforce its material condition as inert matter relying on manipulation, stop-motion photography and the persistence of vision to appear as if it is moving of its own volition. It’s an illusion that, not to put too fine a point on it, resonates with the creation myth.
It also retains a sense of mystery — how often do we ask how was it done? — that doesn’t hold for other forms of stop-motion, such as puppet animation. Puppets are built to move, while clay, in its natural state, is a shapeless lump that eventually dries out and falls apart.
Claymation uses Plasticine, which is made with petroleum jelly and doesn’t dry out, but the sense that an animated character is “formed … of the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7, KJV) nevertheless remains. Whether or not we acknowledge it, our ultimate fate as inert matter—“for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19, KJV) — makes Claymation figures our kindred beings.
What elicits our awe in these creations is their godlike transfer of life to piles of mud; the more an animation invokes the former without disguising the latter, the greater our sense of wonderment at the joining of the two incompatible but ineluctable conditions that represent our present and future.
Take a look at the Talos sequence by Ray Harryhausen from Jason and the Argonauts (1963), in which a bronze statue is aroused by the theft of the treasure it is guarding. Rather than bursting onscreen as a mythical creature from the get-go, as do the Harpies and the Hydra, Talos at first appears in a form closely resembling its actual material state, i.e., a work of art. When it springs to life, it delivers a double jolt that compounds truth with illusion and creates a mesmerizing dualism of credibility and fakery.
This effect permeates Nathalie Djurberg’s installation at the New Museum, a roomful of films and sculpture titled The Parade. Djurberg’s animated figures are wet and squishy, grotesques one and all. They make no effort to hide their identity as hand-molded hunks of clay. They are also brightly colored, saturated and sweet, which lends the exhibition a superficially cartoonish vibe.
Five films are projected on the side walls of the large, deep front room of the museum’s new street-level space, Studio 231, three on the north wall and two on the south. A sixth film, “The Parade of Rituals and Stereotypes” (2012), which is almost eleven minutes long while the others average around six, is hidden away in a rear gallery. Crowding the floor of the front room are eighty-two fanciful, multicolored birds that look as if they’ve just fluttered down from the Claymation screens.
Initially regarding them as something to ignore as I took in the animations, I soon found the birds attracting more and more of my attention. They are formidable objects — a few are hen-size, but most range from waist-high to six feet or more — with bulging eyes and cavernous beaks that veer toward the comic in an obvious, off-putting way.
But taken in the aggregate, orchestrated by pools of light and shadow, their cartoonlike embellishments bounce the eye from one bird to another, setting off a riffling, buzzy energy. The swells of wings, beaks and tails seem to swarm the room and convert it into a stage for their theatrical displays of plumage — a parade of earthbound avians, tramping on foot because their pasted-on plumage is useless for flight.
There was one remarkable moment in which I turned away from a film and noticed that the half-dozen fellow humans in the room, their eyes glued to the video projections, were all standing stock-still among the birds. For a moment it was impossible to differentiate between the living and the lifelike: the spectators and the artworks seemed equally animated and equally frozen.
(It should be noted how deftly the gamelan-like music by Hans Berg, Djurberg’s longtime collaborator, contributes to the installation’s otherworldly atmosphere, with the audio channels from each of the five film soundtracks blending into an ambience that can only be described as unsettling serenity.)
Djurberg’s animations are well known for their depictions of bestial lust and cruelty — the wall text describes them as “dramatiz[ing] our most primal urges — jealousy, revenge, greed, submission, and gluttony.” But seeing a number of them at once — including the Claymation snuff film “I wasn’t made to play the son” (2011) and “The Parade of Rituals and Stereotypes,” a truly monstrous vision of political, religious, sexual and racial domination — allows for the paradoxes inherent in the art form and the art to become all the more pronounced.
It struck me repeatedly how more than alive, more than real (the literal meaning of surrealism) these alternately clotted and attenuated figures appeared. Any frisson that could be gleaned from watching an ostensible form of children’s entertainment tricked out with adult themes faded fast. The images dug much deeper than that.
The tangled specters onscreen are eviscerated souls, the essence of unconscious motivations and desires. I was intrigued by the compulsion, acted out by a number of figures, to break the skin of another character — through biting, stabbing, cutting or crushing — and release the inchoate mass of clay inside. It is as if they are obsessed with the chaos (social, psychological, biological) lurking beneath the surface, the ur-matter representing both birth and death. Sometimes the interior clay, unfailingly candy-colored, pours out in a virtually never-ending stream.
The relentlessly bright colors of most of the films ensure that the context of children’s movies will always linger in the background. Against the mordant actions onscreen, such a frame of reference reminds us how quickly we can race from innocence to depravity, from the Technicolor of childhood to the garishness of lust and the grisaille of death.
These contradictions are joined by the sense that the animated figures, with their broad-stroke features and stylized limbs, are more human than human — that they express core emotions more succinctly than an actor could because there is no consciousness to work through. The panic, horror and revulsion of the rape victim in “The Parade of Rituals and Stereotypes” are so heartbreaking in their verisimilitude that you forget for a moment you’re looking at modeled clay.
This sensation is compounded by the utter dreamlike quality of the films — a word I hesitate to use because it is all but meaningless, but I mean it literally: they each possess the concrete pointlessness of a dream and express it with an embrace of ellipses that even the most potent of David Lynch’s films doesn’t match.
There is no narrative, just an extended riff on a single idea, sometimes extending well past whatever point it has set out to make (another attribute of dreams) and always ending inconclusively. The speeded-up quality of the stop-motion photography, the elisions of movement between frames, and the rapidly shifting points of view underscore the random jump-cutting we encounter nightly in the images that our brain forces together in our sleep.
Surrealism, like “dreamlike,” has become a meaningless catchall for anything transgressive or eerie. True surrealism, however, is shocking in its familiarity — the obsessions and cruelties played out in Djurberg’s films are the cravings we necessarily but too often unsuccessfully repress in order to carry on with our alleged civilization. The only difference between us and the images of Djurberg’s “Parade” is that they are closer to the mud than we prefer to believe we are. Their transgression is in their distillation of the everyday.
The Parade: Nathalie Djurberg with Music by Hans Berg continues at the New Museum’s Studio 231 (231 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through August 26.
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